Sunday, April 10, 2011

Atlas Sucks

P. J. O'Rourke pans the new Atlas Shrugged movie in the WSJ. And he's sympathetic to Rand.

The Hollywood Reporter calls it "flubbed, underproduced."

More as it comes to hand.


Michael Prescott said...

Variety pans it:

A website called Coming Soon does likewise:

Ken said...

The reviews may pan the movie, but the comments on the reviews are dominated by the fan base. They're truly priceless. I especially like the one on the Coming Soon site from "Preston", who manages to misspell "opinion" twice in two different ways before signing off as one of the "Men of the Mind."

Unknown said...

"It’s the plain folks, not a Taggart/Rearden elite, whose prospects and opportunities are stolen by corrupt school systems, health-care rationing, public employee union extortions, carbon-emissions payola and deficit-debt burden graft."

Yes, those are the grave evils of our time. PJ O'Rourke is a hoot. Sure, he dabbles in ignoramosity (is that a word?), but he's still a goddamn hoot.

I cut my baby teeth on his often hilarious political observations, and while I am surely less sympathetic to his particular hallucinations (I have my own, thank you), he is a very entertaining writer.

Michael Prescott said...

Four positive reviews:

One mostly negative review:

Two mixed but mostly favorable reviews:

In general, fans of the book or fans of a limited-government philosophy seem to like it, and those who aren't, don't.

Michael Prescott said...

Okay, my last two links didn't publish correctly, so here they are in TinyUrl form.

Seattle Times:

NY Post:

Daniel Barnes said...

I've yet to see a credible review that regards it as aesthetically successful. Rather, its political correctness serves as the sole line of defense for supportive reviewers. If aesthetics are a side issue, and it's all about the message, why not make a movie of "The Road To Serfdom" instead?

Slightly OT, if there's one bullshit quasi-Randian meme that I'm really sick of its the one about how businessmen are supposedly always "hated" in popular culture. Oh really? Been to an airport bookstore recently? You'll find it plastered with sycophantic hagiographies of business leaders. Actually, successful businessmen are almost universally groveled to and feted by everyone from their credit card supplier on up, so much so that absolute conmen can manufacture entire careers from a sufficiently compliant media corps. The reason they don't make many movies about business is because business is by and large rather dull, revolving largely around conversations in meeting rooms or factory routines. Rand knew nothing about business other than her romantic fantasies about it; reality is not Atlas Shrugged but rather Dilbert. Doh! They don't make movies with businessmen as heroes for the same reason they don't use Powerpoint presentations as dramatic devices! And unlike, say, espionage, which is also rather dull in reality apparently, the audience actually knows about the working world making the suspension of disbelief you find in spy movies almost impossible.

Kelly said...

Daniel, couldn’t agree with you more. It helps maintain the fiction though. Same with the claims of altruism. Apparently everyone is telling everyone to sacrifice themselves, although I can't remember the last time someone said that I should sacrifice myself for something. Yet when I talk to objectivists, I hear that I hear it all the time. Maybe I need to get out more.

stuart said...

Daniel, you are right, and I would add that the adulation of Trumps and (pre-exposure) Madoffs is a very American phenomenon. As an ex-compatriot of Conrad Black,who was thoroughly loathed in the country from which he founded his fortune, I assure everybody that the syndrome does not cover the whole of North America.


Mark Plus said...

They don't make movies with businessmen as heroes for the same reason they don't use Powerpoint presentations as dramatic devices! And unlike, say, espionage, which is also rather dull in reality apparently, the audience actually knows about the working world making the suspension of disbelief you find in spy movies almost impossible.

In the real world, flamboyant business people often sound nutty as well. Lynn Tilton, for example, claims that she had a mystical experience which convinced her to go back into business and make a fortune. Can you imagine what Rand would have said about that as the reason given for someone's financial success?

Michael Prescott said...

Rand fans are doing their best to ensure a big opening day for the movie. Originally slated for 11 cities, the film is now expected to play in at least 80. I knew the distribution must have expanded considerably when I discovered that a multiplex in my out-of-the-way small-town area will be showing it. We almost never get low-budget indie films here.


Michael Prescott said...

Rotten Tomatoes is now posting AS reviews. As of this writing, there are 13, and all are sharply negative. So is the movie a dog? Or are these critics just exhibiting a knee-jerk reaction to a film whose message they disagree with?

Behemoth said...

Or are these critics just exhibiting a knee-jerk reaction to a film whose message they disagree with?

Some of the reviewers actually seem somewhat sympathetic to Rand. One is even from Reason magaine. I think it's becoming abundantly clear that this movie was just incompetently made.

Incidentally, Kurt Loder is now a movie reviewer for Reason magazine?

Daniel Barnes said...

What Behemoth said. Rottentomatoes actually had it as one of its most highly anticipated movies a few weeks ago - 4 stars or something. They were gagging for it.

Daniel Barnes said...

I should clarify: the audience at RT were gagging for it. And yes, it currently has 13 pans from the official critics, yet 88% of the audience likes it, giving it 3.7/5 on average.

The reason for this is most likely that this is the Rand fan base lining up to see the movie and support it from the first moment (they were also probably the early anticipators too). There's probably a bit of Tea Party in there as well. As the word of mouth outside of Objectivism is pretty dire, I doubt there will be many general punters in these theatres now or in the future. At this late stage of the game I will really be amazed if it crosses over. If the producers were smart, they would have budgeted to break even or slightly better with the hardcore fanbase.

Actually, one side benefit of this will be we'll actually get at least an upper bound idea of how large the Objectivist cohort actually is. After all, only the most orthodox ARIans will be boycotting it. Or rather, pretending it doesn't exist.

Michael Prescott said...

A positive "review," except it's not really a movie review but more of a general disquisition on the wonderfulness of Ayn Rand:

Most LOL-worthy line: "While the literary polish of Rand’s 1,000-plus-page novel is unparalleled ..."

You have to wonder if this guy has read much serious literature.

The RT count is now 16 reviews, one of which is positive, the rest negative.

Michael Prescott said...

For those keeping score at home, here's a brutal review by conservative writer Megan McArdle:

I like this line: "Filming it well would require imagination to capture the combination of WPA mural and noir that forms the backdrop for her novels."

That's a near-perfect description of the visual quality of Rand's novels - WPA mural and noir. (I don't say this as a criticism.)

Daniel Barnes said...

Hate to say it, but looks like my original predictions based on the trailers - "a two hour version of the opening narration in Star Wars Episode One set to stock photography" and "designed by NASA to see how long people could last in space without entertainment" are starting to look pretty on the money...;-)

Michael Prescott said...

"Hate to say it, but ..."

C'mon, Daniel, you don't hate to say it. ;-)

It does indeed look like your initial impression was spot on, and my optimism was, er, misplaced.

A movie about a train wreck doesn't have to be a train wreck, but this one just may be.

Still, it will probably make some money on its opening weekend, as Rand fans (and the curious) fill the theaters.

gregnyquist said...

I knew the distribution must have expanded considerably when I discovered that a multiplex in my out-of-the-way small-town area will be showing it.

For better or worse, no such look in my neck of the woods behind the redwood curtain. The whole area on the West coast and a quite a ways inland north of Sacramento and south of Portland appears to be an Atlas free zone, and, barring a huge opening weekend, might remain that way. The closest showing is in San Rafael, over 5 hours drive away (so don't be expecting any reviews of this movie from me).

The poor reviews makes one wonder if this thing will ever be completed. If they struggled with the material in the first part of the novel, what are they going to do with the final third of the work, when the palpable absurdities really begin to pile up, hot and steaming?

Anonymous said...

Well, at least it gets a thumbs up from Nathaniel Branden! "I could not imagine a better production," he asserts.

Anonymous said...

Surprisingly, there's a rather sympathetic review in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Xtra Laj said...

That sympathetic review is shown as a negative one on Rotten Tomatoes. I guess it is, but I'm thinking that this movie will end up in cult B-Movie territory. I'll likely try to catch it tomorrow evening or Monday morning just to provide my own review.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hey Laj,

I think it's got camp classic potential too. It's the dialogue that gets it over the line there, the rest just looks amazingly mediocre. Anyway, if you review it, we'll publish it.

My guess is actually that what potential it did have to be a great movie was strangled not so much by the budget but by the Rand-cult aesthetic. That is, to be a great movie it would have to be substantially rewritten, particularly Rand's god-awful dialogue (To borrow a remark Pauline Kael made about Paddy Chayefsky, her ear for dialogue is in full cauliflower). But for Rand cultists that's a sacrilege. They'd rather wear their millstone all the way to the bottom.


Xtra Laj said...

I'm going to see it this evening. My younger brother has already seen it twice, just to give you an idea of how one Objectivist feels about it. And he is a serious movie buff (well, he was one before Objectivism - now he still loves movies and sees lots of them, but the Objectivist slant can stifle the judgment, IMNSHO).

My guess is that given my familiarity with the novel, I might be able to overlook some of the flaws - but I'll get you a review sometime soon.


Michael Prescott said...

Box Office Mojo estimates Atlas will make approximately $1.7 million this weekend - not a bad haul, considering it's playing on only 300 screens. The per-screen average is $5,590, placing Atlas behind the two big new releases but ahead of nearly everything else.

However, per-screen averages can be deceptive, because when a film has a limited release, diehard fans will go out of their way to see it. As an example, the indie film Double Hour, playing on just two screens, is averaging $15,400 per screen.

So we really can't extrapolate too much from the per-screen numbers. The real question is whether Atlas will have legs, or whether it will fall off rapidly once the core audience has seen it.

Daniel Barnes said...

I think it's pretty obvious that this movie will have a diehard base that will guarantee X return. As I said from the start, if you did a bit of research, and you can keep your costs low enough, you're almost certain to break even or even make money. Back when the budget was reportedly $5m they were going to do well pretty much no matter what. At $20m (the latest figure) it's not quite so certain. The drop off is almost certain to be pronounced - various reports have people driving for hundreds of kilometres and, like Laj's brother, seeing it multiple times, which is giving you a big weekend total. But that's just not sustainable. And the general vibe out there from reviewers just too negative to see it cross over. Then there's the marketing spend - that could easily get to the $5m mark too even at this low level.

The other point is that unlike major studio releases, which keep every dollar for the first couple of weeks in the run, indies will often offer a split of the take from the start to theatre owners to get as wide a distribution as possible. With Atlas I wouldn't be surprised if the theatres have a reasonable chunk of that weekend take.

Daniel Barnes said...

There would also be good margin in marketing gimmicks to the fanbase: special edition DVDs, deluxe boxed sets, signed and framed pictures, etc etc. Think like marketing to Trekkies. Remember these folks will pay $1000 for some cassettes of Leonard Peikoff droning on.

Michael Prescott said...

One of them paid, I think, $14,000 for that godawful painting of Ayn Rand as the pinnacle of evolution. For those lucky enough not to have seen it, it depicted an upward progression from Australopithecus to caveman, etc., and finally, at the top, Ayn Rand.

Anyone willing to part with 14 g's for that framed turd would surely fork over at least a grand for the coffee mug used by the guy who played Wesley Mouch.

Neil Parille said...


You mean this --

Daniel Barnes said...

UPDATE: Atlas producer Aglialoro gives us his boffo boxoffice expectations: $100m. And he also, perhaps inadvertently, reveals he's got a 50/50 split deal with the theatres, as I suggested he probably would. So whatever Atlas is grossing, halve it as ROI. So they've got a long road ahead.

I don't think he's going to get anywhere near that domestically. Hopefully international, DVD etc might save the day.

Xtra Laj said...

Just got back from seeing the movie. I don't see that movie grossing well outside the US, to be honest, though it will do well with the Objectivist and anti-government fanbase. It caters fully to the Objectivist sensitivities - my guess is that David Kelley was well utilized. Objectivists have yearned for years to see their values portrayed on the big screen and this movie does it for them in unadulterated fashion.

I also can understand why people would want to watch it even while accepting it is not a very good movie going strictly by technical excellence and production values - the camp is well done once you accept the movie on its own terms. I'll write you a full review and send it to you or post it in the comments here sometime tomorrow.

Michael Prescott said...

Neil - yes, that's the work of art in question. Thanks for the link.

$100 million for Atlas? I doubt it. Aglialoro even says it could do better than The Passion of the Christ - which grossed $612 million worldwide. The guy is off his rocker if he thinks Atlas will generate that kind of cash.

Passion grossed $83 million in its opening weekend, making it the number one film, and averaged an incredible $27,554 per screen. Contrast that with Atlas' opening weekend (admittedly on one-tenth as many screens): $1.7 million, $5,590 per screen.

Xtra Laj said...


To where should I send the review?


Daniel Barnes said...

hi Laj

Michael Prescott said...

I saw Atlas today. The theater was nearly empty; there were about ten people. But I saw it in early afternoon, when the whole multiplex was largely empty, so I don't think the turnout means much.

Overall I enjoyed the movie. It's not the way I would have done it, but the movie in your head is always different from the movie that gets made.

The melodramatic aspects of the story were severely downplayed. The tone was, in some ways, rather naturalistic. Some of Rand's lines are retained, but there's a great deal of updated, slangy dialogue. For instance, when meeting Francisco, Rearden quips, "Not a fan." Rand wouldn't have approved, and it may not be the ideal way of translating her fiction to the screen, but it works better than the stilted, grandiloquent dialogue in the 1949 version of The Fountainhead.

The low budget didn't bother me, and the performances are generally fine, though Paul Johansson as Galt is not as compelling as he should be. It took me a while to warm up to Taylor Schilling, but I grew to like her in the part.

The film's biggest problem is that at first we aren't given sufficient reason to become emotionally involved in the characters, notably Dagny. The story is told in a rather bloodless fashion, and at times I was wondering why I should care whether Dagny saves her railroad or not. The emotional meaning of the company to her is not explored and simply has to be assumed. This is a major oversight. In a movie we need to feel what the heroes are feeling. A scene early on that shows or tells us what the proud tradition of Taggart Transcontinental means to Dagny on a human level is sorely needed. There are such scenes in the book.

Around the time Dagny goes rogue and starts the John Galt Line, the emotional side of her character starts coming to the fore. Because of this, the second half of the film works better than the first.

The maiden run of the John Galt Line is nicely handled, with stirring music and very adequate CG effects. (I disagree with the nitpicking critics who said the CG looked bad.) The search for the elusive builder of the motor also works well. The motor, by the way, is updated to take advantage of the Casimir Effect, which suggests to me that the Zero Point Field is involved, though I may have misunderstood. Anyway, it sounds plausible enough when the characters talk about it, though any physicists in the audience will probably chuckle.

In my opinion, the rash of hostile reviews is unjustified. The film isn't perfect, but it largely accomplishes what it sets out to do, and it certainly stands out from run-of-the-mill fare about evil Wall Street tycoons and heroic Greenpeace operatives. I think ideological animus and groupthink are driving many of those reviews. Personally I would give Atlas 3 out of 4 stars. Whether the filmmakers could handle the much greater challenges in dramatizing parts 2 and 3 is an open question. They did better with Part 1 than I would have expected, and they deserve more credit than they're getting.